Team Sports. Why Ruin a Good Thing?

I grew up in New Orleans in the 60’s and 70’s. I was eight years old when the New Orleans Saints started playing in 1967 and it was around that time I became aware of football. Every Sunday morning I would watch Tulane highlights and the Notre Dame recap of their game. I knew LSU was good and I remember watching them beat Auburn by a point on TV with my dad back in 1969. Sunday was also the day my dad and I would watch the Green Bay Packers and the Saints if they were on TV. My dad grew up thirty miles from Green Bay and I remember vividly that on a trip to Wisconsin to see my grandmother I confessed to him that I liked the Saints more than the Packers. It was a big deal for an eight year old to feel he might be taking sides against his father’s legacy, particularly when those Packers were a dynasty in the NFL at that time. To my surprise and relief he winked at me at said “I like the Saints better too.”

Players were accessible. I went and saw Tulane play Georgia Tech when I was a seven year old cub scout. When I was slightly older a bunch of us would get dropped off at the old Tulane Stadium for a game and once it was over we could actually get down to the tunnel so we could reach out and physically touch our heroes as they went to the locker room. I can remember Bobby “Pickles” Peccarere slapping a Greenie on the back then holding his hand in the air and exclaiming “Bob Marshall!” as if his hand would now be forever transformed into something that could catch any type of ball effortlessly!

When the Saints played at Tulane you could form a line and yell at the opponents as they came out. I remember yelling something that I’m sure was quite nasty at Jerry Sturm of the Houston Oilers. I think I said something like “We’re gonna get you Sturm!” which caused him to look at me with derision. Mission accomplished! If you waited around you could see the players from both teams walk out the stadium. If you wrote the team or player you got an action shot, usually they were making a football move or leaping on the air, and it was autographed. When Archie Manning joined the Saints in 1971 from Ole Miss you could not only get his autograph you could see him on Seventh and St. Charles watching Mardi Gras parades.

We had an American Basketball Association team called the New Orleans Buccaneers. We later got an NBA team called the Jazz. The Bucs played at Loyola and Tulane, while the Jazz, lead by LSU’s Pistol Pete Maravich, played in the Superdome. There was also the old City Series. Tulane, Loyola, Xavier, Dillard, University of New Orleans and Southern University at New Orleans were the participants. They would play a round robin schedule with the winner getting a trophy. Xavier won the first year, no surprise when you realize that Bruce Seals and Donald “Slick” Watts went on to play for Seattle in the NBA, but even more remarkable is that Seals, James “Shirt” Williams and Greg Berniard were teammates in high school at Booker T. Washington.

Tulane had Pierre Gaudin, a super smooth guard from De La Salle. Dillard had Billy Ray Hobley, who went on to play for the Harlem Globetrotters. UNO had Wilbur Holland, who lead the Privateers to within a basket of a NCAA Division II national championship before playing with the Chicago Bulls.It was a magical time.

High school games were a major part of the sports landscape. Because of the number of Catholic and private schools drawing from across the metro area, neighborhoods were often divided. In a previous blog I had written about the Milan Street Gang. Our guys went to schools all over the city. Bret Berry, C.J. Gerdes, and Gary Klein went to Holy Cross. Darryl Ruppert and Russell Alongi went to Redemptorist, Spencer Gagnet, Allain Gagnet, Marshall Schwartz and Johnny Schwartz went to De La Salle, Michael Graham went to Jesuit, and I went to Country Day. All the big football games were played at Tad Gormley Stadium in City Park, but basketball was huge too. The Catholic Youth Organization ( CYO) Tournament was the biggest basketball event of the year. Most of the games were played in Jesuit’s cavernous gym that was one of the oldest in New Orleans, a landmark in Mid-City. The CYO featured players like Rick Robey from Brother Martin, Jordy Hultberg from De La Salle, Carlos Zuniga from Holy Cross, James Ray from Landry, and Sean Tuohy from Newman. All local legends who went on to play college ball with some of them playing professionally.

Some schools were known for particular sports. Redemptorist was a baseball school. Their best player, Steve Mura, went on to a stand out career at Tulane. De La Salle and Newman excelled in basketball, Brother Martin did well in both. Newman, a small private school now better known for producing Peyton and Eli Manning, was a basketball powerhouse as well as being one of the finest academic schools in the country. Playing in “Death Valley” they didn’t lose a district game for over a decade and won several state championships. Even though they were a lower classification they always got invited to play in the CYO Tournament and the Newman Invitational was a major event as well. Newman and De La Salle were only separated by a few blocks so they were huge basketball rivals.When Brother Martin played St. Augustine, De La Salle played Jesuit, or when Holy Cross played Chalmette High, the gloves came off regardless of which sport it was.

The New Orleans Recreation Department, (NORD), offered youth sports but for many of us it wasn’t an option. For me I was either too tall to play biddy basketball or too heavy to play 120 pound football. For some kids it was cost, others it was having second jobs after school. So we hit the streets.

We picked our own teams and coached ourselves. We played football on narrow strips of grass or at Audubon Park, but mostly it was in vacant parking lots. It may have been two hand touch but some of those touches were pretty hard and guys landed head first onto concrete. Basketball was played in church gyms, on outdoor public courts, or at recreation centers. We even snuck onto Tulane’s court and played there. The remarkable thing is that many of us went on to have successful and fulfilling high school athletic careers with very little exposure to organized youth sports.

What I discovered was that by playing with kids of all ages, including young adults, I had no anxiety about competing against strangers. I also realized that I didn’t have as many bad habits to correct. I always shot a basketball from above my head with a full release. Many of the biddy all stars were still shooting from their hip or with two hands because they started younger and that was the best way to control the ball. The bottom line is that by the time we started high school we were as equipped to compete as any kid from a structured program.

The structured programs for youth that I saw back then were pretty vanilla. Football teams had at most two coaches, basketball and baseball one. Parent’s dropped their kids off and then came back and picked them up. In many cases kids walked or rode their bikes to practices. Parents sat in the stands for games and for the most part understood that coaches were volunteers and that the idea was to have fun.

It is now 2010 and a lot has changed. Pro sports is a multi-million dollar business and autographs are no longer free. You can meet your favorite players but it is almost always under controlled circumstances with a fee or some publicity involved. College sports is big business too. It used to be that students got into games for free with their student ID but now they have to pay as well and are not guaranteed a seat at their own school’s game. Today’s college athletes are there to play sports because they know their scholarship could be revoked if they play poorly and a new recruit looks more promising.The goal is to get paid to play, not necessarily graduate. The pressure to win has caused programs to give scholarships to “student-athletes” to attend their universities that normally would have no chance at admittance. When these “students” get arrested now for any number of criminal actions we are more concerned about the impact on the team than we are for the transgression itself. College sports is a cash cow to fund infrastructure improvements, pay salaries, and increase admissions. Even the adminstrations at these schools understand the impact financially that being successful in athletics provides.

Sadly this philosophy is now finding its way into the high school ranks as well.  Recruitment of athletes is illegal but it goes on. It has been happening since the 70’s, I am not naive to that, but the sophistication has evolved. Back then a parent or booster might steer a kid or kids to a particular school. Now it seems that many of these “elite” programs have a network of scouts that go out of their way to make an athlete aware of the benefits of their school. Some of these “schools” play a national schedule and fly all over the country. Summers are now filled with weight lifting, AAU teams, and camps at various colleges. To compete in today’s high school athletic arena requires year round dedication.

From my perspective the state of professional, collegiate, and high school sports has gone down a path that they cannot turn back from. I am no hypocrite as I love watching pro, college, and high school sports. And I support the notion that sports is front door to a school and a community and that anything you do you should do as well as possible. What I am concerned about is that greed has become a partner in this process and that the real danger is that youth sports will be next.

Youth sports now have teams with full coaching staffs wearing coordinated outfits. Some football teams even have games in stadiums with coaches in press boxes. Baseball, soccer, and basketball have travel teams with sleek state of the art motor coaches and budgets. Teams even have apparel contracts. Young kids have swing coaches, speed instructors, personal trainers, and nutritionists. Playing touch football in the street, pick up basketball on a vacant court, or baseball in a sandlot is non-existent. These cul de sacced kids can’t ride their bike anywhere of significance and free time is hard to come by  because everything is on a schedule. In my neighborhood we would all migrate to a kid’s house and after some small talk decide what we were going to do and where. Today everything for a child involves a lesson or an instructor and the pressure to choose a sport is relentless.

I would love to start a recreational league but no one would like it and by no one I mean parents. You see my draft would be conducted by the kids. They would pick captains and those captains would then draft their players. In football there would be one volunteer coach who would be a teen-ager, not a parent. There would be referees in football but in all other sports,(basketball, lacrosse, soccer,and  baseball), the kids would call their own fouls and outs. There would be one teen-ager available to arbitrate if  a dispute got out of hand and if two or more players did fight they would be suspended for a game.

Parents could sit in the stands but that is it. They could not talk to their kids until after the game was over. Unfortunately a lot of kids get coached from the stands. The law of the land in Wautlet’s rec league is that you cheer and yell encouraging things. After the game refreshments would be served and the kids would sit together and rehash the game. The parents would sit in a designated area until it was time to leave.

You know what would happen? The team’s would be evenly matched. The players would learn about being responsible and owning decisions. They would be playing for themselves, for their friends, and to have fun. They would learn how to coach and help each other. They would learn how to deal with disappointment and success. And they would start to feel independent and empowered.

The boomers, my generation, have not handled our responsibilities as well as we could have. We forgot how we were raised. We are fearful and impatient. We don’t just keep up with the Jones, we have to blow by them.The have it all entitlement path we have chosen has left us in debt and we are raising a generation of kids that rely on us for money, transportation, even help with homework, and I’m not talking about just checking it after it’s done. I pity a kid who has never rode his bike to a drug store to buy football books or get a malt, taken a bus to go see a movie, or stayed out at night to play kick the can in a neighbors yard. I was raised never to take a ride from a stranger, to cross the street or reverse my path if I saw something suspicious, to ride my bike on familiar streets, etc. In the summer I left the house in the morning, came home for lunch, left again and came home for dinner. I had no cell phone or GPS. But I had friends who were with me and we looked out for one another.

Team sports is one of the finest teaching tools ever conceived. It promotes cooperation, understanding, sacrifice, unselfishness, and makes you handle failure and success. If those values are skewed by well intentioned but over zealous parents then we will have taken away one of the most valuable things a person has, his or her’s childhood.

About Merrill Wautlet

I am a finance professional and volunteer coach. I have also served in a leadership role for numerous non-profit and civic organizations. For a complete profile feel free to check me out on Linkedin.
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